Israel Book Shop presents Chapter 3 of a new online serial novel, The Black Sheep, by Esther Rapaport. Check back for a new chapter every week. Click here for previous chapters.
Copyright © Israel Bookshop Publications.
“Ariella?” Mindy Kagan lifted her pencil off her paper. “I don’t understand where the x of this equation goes.”
“Here,” her private tutor replied, pointing to a spot on the page.
“This? This is the second question, and I’m still on the first question.”
“Oy, you’re right,” Ariella said. “So what did you ask me?”
Mindy looked at her, baffled. “Where is the x?”
“In which question?”
Mindy took a deep breath. “The first one.”
“Oh.” Ariella lowered her eyes to the page. Zichron Yaakov. Hadera. Haifa. Tzefas. Teveriah. Acco. Rosh Pinah. Nahariyah. Which part of the “north” had Osher gone to? She drummed the blue eraser on the table and pictured a map of Israel in her mind. Assuming that Osher had not crossed the border into Syria, where had he been speaking from? He didn’t sound carefree and calm. The sudden silence, the cut-off conversation… She’d need to sit with Abba, Ima, Shoshi, and Lakey and ask them for every shred of information that might shed some light on this very bewildering darkness. Which yeshivah could he have gone to that let him be so cut off from home, and supported keeping his family completely out of the loop?
The eraser fell on the floor, and Ariella bent down to pick it up. “Listen, Mindy,” she said when she sat back up. She passed a hand over her forehead. “What are your plans for today?”
“Me? Well, I have to finish studying for my test, and I have to help my mother, and I want to read a library book…”
“So would you mind moving ‘finish studying for the test’ to the end of the list?”
“What do you mean?”
“Go home and help your mother now, read your book, and then come back at seven. We’re almost done with the material, and within an hour, an hour and a half at most, we’ll finish it, b’ezras Hashem.”
“And then you will be able to study with me?” Mindy asked, her eyes sparkling with clever wit.
Ariella smiled. “B’ezras Hashem, yes,” she said. “If that’s okay with you.”
She walked Mindy to the door. When she came back to the table, she pushed aside all her old math books, and placed a sheet of paper on the table. TO FIND OUT, she scrawled in large letters on the top. Then, after a pause, she made a list:
Did something happen in yeshivah the previous weekend or recently at all?
What did Osher say at home on that last Shabbos? What did he say to his friends before he left?
Did anyone see him walking/traveling/waiting at a bus stop? Did they notice anything unusual?
She folded the paper into a small, flat rectangle that she slid into her wallet. Then she glanced at the clock and left the house. A short, focused visit to her parents, and she’d be back in time for the lesson with Mindy.
Abba and Ima were worried—although not that worried that they needed to contact the police, because they knew their son. He’d disappeared for a day or two in the past; sometimes he left messages, and other times he didn’t… It was hard to know what Osher was going through; he didn’t usually talk much even when he came back.
Poor him. Poor them.
And they had all hoped so much that at Rav Steinhaus’s yeshivah, Daas Torah, he would finally find the right path.
Ariella knocked at the door and then opened it.
“Ariella!” Ima was happy to see her. “What a nice surprise! Isn’t today your long day, when you have students all afternoon? Or are you still recovering from your trip?”
“I actually starting tutoring again, but slowly,” Ariella replied. “I had one student today.” And I stopped in the middle of our lesson.
“I’m glad you came. What can I give you to eat? Something hot from lunch?”
“No thanks. I ate pretty late today, and I’m still full. I wanted to talk to you about Osher, Ima.”
Ima’s smile disappeared as she went back to polishing the fleishig faucet. “About the letter that I got from him this morning?”
“Letter? I didn’t know about a letter.”
“I thought Lakey or Shoshi told you about it. A letter?” he smiled bitterly. “A note is more like it. Green with black and blue leaves, again. He wrote…” She leaned on the counter. “That he is learning Torah, and that everything is fine with him. That’s it.”
“Osher never liked writing at length.”
“Yes…” She opened the fridge. Although she’d said she wasn’t hungry, she was looking for something without knowing what it was. Maybe a bit of air. “He called me, too, Ima. Last night. But he didn’t say anything new, only to tell you that he is somewhere up north, and that we shouldn’t worry.”
“When did he call?” Her mother opened her eyes wide.
“Late last night. Can I have some of this carrot salad, Ima? Does it have garlic?”
“Yes, take a plate from the cabinet. Do you want crackers with it?”
“Sure, thanks.” Ariella sat down. “How is it that I find myself eating by you even if I’m not hungry? It happens every time… I guess if I see your carrot salad, Ima, I just can’t resist.”
“The garlic is very good for your hoarseness. When did you visit the speech therapist last?”
“A few months ago. But I’m not really interested in that, Ima. I am much more preoccupied with Osher than I am with myself right now. Abba spoke to his mashgiach, right?”
Ima opened her mouth to protest to her daughter’s blasé attitude about her own self-care, but decided to suffice with a chiding smile, and replied, “Yes.”
“And what did he say?”
“I told you already, that Osher came to tell him that he was leaving to try out a different yeshivah, and thank you and kol tuv.”
“I imagine the mashgiach asked him which yeshivah he was switching to.”
“Right. And Osher didn’t answer. Then he asked him what his parents had to say about this, and Osher didn’t answer that question either.”
Strings of orange carrot got caught in the tines of Ariella’s fork; more than she was eating, she just kept twisting the fork this way and that. “Did Abba speak to the mashgiach again after that?”
“He sure did. After Osher called and said that he is up north, Abba called the mashgiach to try to figure out what has been going on recently.”
“The mashgiach said that Osher had actually been learning pretty nicely lately, and was attending shiur, but he didn’t look happy. He said that Osher is a good boy…” She hesitated. “And that in general, he can be trusted. But still, he added that if it didn’t work out for Osher in this new place, it was not certain that they would take him back.”
“That’s understandable… What else did he say?”
“That’s it.” Ima sighed.
“I think that Abba should go there and talk to some of the bachurim, like Osher’s roommates. Maybe he said something a little more specific to one of them? Maybe they can help us track him down?”
“Yes, Abba thought of that idea himself.”
“One second, Ima.” As usual, her mind jumped from one thing to the next, trying to cover the entire gamut of possible options. “The letter came in the mail? With a stamp?”
“Yes. We checked it. No north, no nothing. It came from Bnei Brak.”
“So is he in northern Bnei Brak, or what?”
They looked at one another, their faces mirroring each other’s confusion.
The principal of the Abu Usmiya school did not come back; he must have accepted the truant officer’s opinion that there was no chance of the schools merging. A different Arab showed up the next day. The carpentry shop was closed, as it usually was at that hour, but someone opened the door for him on the second floor.
“You’ve got a nice view here,” the guest began, leaning on the wall of the house and gazing out at the horizon.
“That’s right. Baruch Hashem.”
“And the porch there probably has an even better view. Is this your house, or is it rented?”
“It’s mine,” the person replied courteously, with a pleasant smile. “Why?”
“Because I want to buy it.”
“Are you a contractor?”
“A real estate dealer.”
They seemed to be competing as to who could smile more broadly. “And why do you want to buy it?”
“I want to buy this house, and all the houses in this row. I want to build a hotel here.” The Arab looked toward the sea again, to the little boats bobbing on the dark waves. “I want lots of space, lots and lots of space. For a large parking lot, storage rooms, and a big park. You know, guests like to be in such a place…” His right hand moved in a circular motion, encompassing the entire close radius in the air.
“I’m sorry,” the owner of the house said, after waiting politely for the monologue to come to an end. “But I’m not selling.”
“Not selling?” The Arab’s grin wavered and then disappeared. “Why not?”
“Because I also like,” the man’s arm copied the Arab’s motion from a moment earlier, “to be in such a place.”
“But it’s an old house. What’s it worth to you?” the guest scoffed. “On this floor you renovated, so it’s almost new, but for what I’ll pay you, you can buy a house that’s a thousand times nicer.” His voice rose. “It’s worth it for you, Mr. Reiness!”
The man shook his head. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m not selling the house at this time.”
“At this time? When will you be selling?”
The grin returned. “Sir, the subject is not up for discussion.”
“Why not? Maybe I can come in and explain to you—”
“I’m sorry, but I’m in a hurry now. And believe me, it would be a waste of your time.”
“You’re sure about it? You’re not selling?”
“Right, I’m not selling.”
“And if I come again in a week?”
“Reb Elazar?” A swarthy boy emerged from the house, and then retreated when he saw that he’d interrupted a conversation. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you. I just wanted…oh, it doesn’t matter.”
“It certainly does matter. I’m coming, Osher.” Reb Elazar turned back to the Arab who was still standing there, taking in the sea and the beach with his eyes, as if this was the only spot in the world from where they could be seen. “I’m sorry, sir, but I need to go inside. I wish you lots of success. Maybe try to find some other property. Our Acco is big enough.”
“There are lots of places where the municipality won’t allow it,” the man said dejectedly.
It sounded like genuine despair.
“It was genuine?” Sarah asked him that evening, when he related the incident to her.
“Absolutely. Not that it changes my plans, but it calmed me a bit. Because I always feel pressured when I get these kinds of offers, you know.”
Yes, she knew.
“What are you looking for here, Rebbi?”
The question was surprising, but not unexpected. It wasn’t the first time that it had been asked of Elazar Reiness, in any number of ways and words. The strange thing was the timing.
“Why? Are you not enjoying it here, Osher?”
“Me? I am enjoying being here very much.” Osher hugged the rusty cannon he was perched upon. The cool evening air whipped around him roughly. From their spot at the top of the wall, they could see the sea spread out before them on one side, and the whole city—new and old—on the other side. “Acco is a nice city,” the boy conceded. “Really nice. Calming. But what are you doing living here?”
The bearded man chuckled. “I enjoy the city just as much as you do, first of all. Besides that? I’m a carpenter, as you know. It’s what I do, and this is where my shop is.”
“The carpenter rabbi,” Osher murmured. “But there are many places where you could do your work, you know. And while I agree that there’s holiness in this city—I mean, you have the Ramchal shul and Ohr Torah and all that—there are also so many Arabs living in Acco, and mosques and churches. So, what are you looking for here?”
“You.” Reiness laughed and straightened his yarmulke, which was about to fall.
“Lots of people are looking for me, but they haven’t been able to find me,” the youth said tonelessly. “Why do you think you’ll be able to do it?”
“I’ve had a knack for finding things ever since I was a little kid.” Rabbi Reiness’s blue eyes twinkled at him. “My mother, alehah hashalom, would send me to look for anything that got lost. But let’s not talk about that now; you’ll get bored. Call the others and ask them what they think about a light supper. My rebbetzin prepared some delicious food for us, if my sense of smell is not deceiving me.”
The boy slipped off the ancient cannon—or was it faux ancient? Rabbi Reiness was not sure of its true age—and walked further along on the wall to where the others were standing and chatting.
“Supper,” he said tersely. “Come on.”
When they were all sitting on benches on the deserted promenade a few hundred meters down from the cannon spot, Osher raised the subject again, insistently. “This is not your real house, Rabbi Reiness, right?”
“It sure is.”
“Where did you live before this?”
“So why did you suddenly come to Acco, if you never had any connection here from before?”
“I actually did have a connection to here.” Reb Elazar smiled his famous grin. “I lived in this city when I was a child. Until I was six.”
“In the house where you live now?”
“Osher, you want some cucumber?” Dovid interrupted. “Here’s a huge one. It’s so big, it will keep you busy and quiet for a long time.”
“Dovid,” Reb Elazar said quietly.
“I’m sorry, Rebbi, I just don’t have the patience for nudges. He’s still a guest, and with all due respect to him, if he has a list of questions, he shouldn’t go through it while he’s sitting next to me.”
Osher sat swinging his legs, gazing at the water that was growing blacker by the minute. He didn’t seem offended—perhaps because he hadn’t even heard Dovid’s barbs.
“Now,” Rabbi Reiness said, after a few minutes of “pass the hummus, please” and “who wants apple juice?” talk, “if everyone is full, maybe the time has come to satiate our souls a bit, as well?” He looked at his students.
To Osher, the sentence sounded a bit too elegant, almost like the rabbi was reading it from a book, but none of the other carpentry apprentices snickered at it. They just listened to Rabbi Reiness in silence.
Osher stood up and walked near the benches. He felt the others’ piercing eyes on him, but ignored them. Reb Elazar spoke nicely, really nicely. If Abba, Ima, and Ariella would hear him, they would be happy. But he wasn’t sure that the thought of him living in Acco would please them at all. Then again, it was definitely better than lots of other places…
Just to be sure, he had decided not to tell them anything for now. He wasn’t even sure he’d be staying here long-term. He wasn’t born to be a carpenter, as he had come to realize in the short time since he’d arrived. Now he was staying just to check if it was worth it for him to stay on for other reasons. Reb Elazar had charmed him from the first moment. That encounter had also been on a bench, although the scenery had been much less special than it was here…
To this day, Rabbi Reiness and I can’t decide who found whom. Perhaps we both found each other. I was standing near the bench dreamily, lost in my own thoughts, and he was standing opposite me, looking into his little green notepad. It was only at the last second that we avoided a serious collision.
“Hey!” I said to him at that last second, right when he raised his eyes.
“Oh!” he replied. “Sorry, sorry, I’m so sorry. I almost crashed into you!”
“It’s alright,” I said. “You wouldn’t have been the first.”
“The first to do what?” He closed his pad.
“To crash into me.”
“You mean, you’ve been knocked down before?”
“You could say so.” I smiled in a friendly way. “But it’s fine. You can’t see anything from the outside, so it doesn’t bother anyone.”
He straightened his black hat (not the shabby-looking one, the nice Shabbos one. Later he told me that he’d come to Bnei Brak for a wedding of a former student) and looked at me.
“It actually sounds very disturbing,” he noted, and raised his eyebrows. “To be knocked over by someone. Did it hurt?”
“Then you get used to it.”
I don’t know why I started talking to him that way. Maybe because he started talking that way to me. He asked me for my name, and then where I live, and only then, too late, did I realize that I didn’t know this guy at all, and that I’d been taught from age zero not to speak to strangers. Okay, so I’m no longer a little boy, but still.
“Whatever; it doesn’t matter,” I said. “Anyway, I need to go back to yeshivah. The shiur starts soon.”
“Which yeshivah are you in?”
“Right now? Or the day after tomorrow?”
“Is there a difference?”
“Right now I’m in yeshivah, and the name of the place doesn’t matter, just like my name doesn’t matter. But the day after tomorrow, I might not have patience for yeshivah anymore.”
He sat down on the bench and put his hat on his knees. “You don’t look like someone who is going to leave yeshivah.”
I laughed. “You think so? This is my third yeshivah already.”
“You look very sheltered.” Yes, that’s the word he chose.
“Sure. That’s because of my parents, who raised me well. They’re not to blame that their son can’t sit still for ten minutes. But I’m also not to blame, and neither are the maggidei shiur. It’s no one’s fault.”
He looked at me, and I returned his gaze. There was real concern in his eyes.
I felt that I had to reassure him quickly. “It will be fine, b’ezras Hashem. I mean, I hope it will be fine.”
He continued looking at me with that same expression, that look of his, and I almost felt tears coming. “It’s really fine!” I repeated, and stood up. “You can relax. You didn’t knock me down, and I’ll manage with all the rest.”
“But why do they knock you down?” he asked.
“My friends? Oh, they don’t mean it. If you’d know me better, you’d see that I’m the irritating type, the type who doesn’t know what to say or when to say it. You know, there are those types who just know how to do the right thing, at the right time, and in the right place. I have a sister like that. But I’m the exact opposite. I also don’t get along with my friends, don’t do well in learning, and I don’t succeed at anything that I try to do. No one has it easy with me. That’s it.” I turned around. I couldn’t stand that way he was looking at me.
“Look, bachur’l.” He put a hand on my shoulder and spoke rapidly. “If you don’t want to give me details about yourself, that’s fine. But can I give you my contact information? Just so you have it? And if you ever feel like it—then please call me. Maybe I can help you.” He opened his green notepad, pulled a sheet out from the end, and wrote something on it. Then he gave the paper to me.
I glanced at it. Elazar Reiness, it said. And there was a phone number.
“How can you help me?” I asked, trying to sound blasé, as if to say, I don’t really believe that you have a way to help me, but if you really want me to ask, then I’m asking.
“I have a carpentry shop,” he said. “And I have great guys who work for me there, from good homes. Like you.” He smiled. “The type of boys who struggled in yeshivos, for all kinds of reasons. It doesn’t matter how they got to me, but they ended up there.” He stuck his green notepad into his jacket pocket. “Baruch Hashem, I think they are happy with us.”
“A carpentry shop?” I was skeptical. “I have two left hands.”
“There’s a carpentry shop there, sure. Anyone who wants to work there, is welcome to do so. But anyone who doesn’t want to, doesn’t have to.”
“And what does such a person do? Walk around all day and all night without doing anything? I don’t like that. And my father always says that idleness is the mother of all sins.”
“That’s very true. Still, I don’t think you would be bored with us.” He was still smiling. “You know what? Try it out. What do you have to lose? Worst comes to worst, if you don’t like it, you can always leave.”
“But I don’t even know you,” I said, feeling like a two-year-old. He’s right, the two-year-old, isn’t he? You don’t just pick yourself up and go somewhere with strangers.
“So here you go. You’ve got my name, and you can find out about me from whomever you want.”
“Where should I find out about you?”
“You can ask people in Haifa,” he replied. “And in Acco.”
“Acco?” I broke the word down into two syllables. “You live there? Aren’t there only Arabs there?”
“No, there are also lots of good Jews in Acco. And that’s where my carpentry shop is.”
I was quiet. So was he.
I fingered the little piece of notepaper and wondered if it was really worth going to his shop. Acco sounded far enough away from all those who know me and who know how worthless I am. “We’ll see…” I said quietly.
“You’ll come, won’t you?” He offered a hand. “I sense that you will come.”
All I agreed to murmur back was another, “We’ll see.” And I didn’t shake his hand either.
But he was right. In the end, I came.